Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ask the Editor - Sex Scenes in a Romance Novel

Question: I would like to know in contemporary romance, what is the rule of thumb as to how many sex scenes there should be in a novel.

Michele Cameron
Moments of Clarity


I’ve edited about fifty contemporary romances during the past four years and have never required a certain number of sex scenes, although I do recommend at least two.

Some of the novels I’ve worked on have an abundance of sex scenes, and some have virtually none. However, a contemporary romance does need to have certain basic elements, which I abbreviate by thinking of the acronym CLICK: conflict, longing, intimacy, climax, and kiss. I have to scramble the final three letters of my acronym in order to discuss these elements in sequence, but it’s a good memory tool.

Conflict lies at the core of any novel, and in a romance it’s crucial. A romantic couple without any sparks is like Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind—nice and sweet, but boring. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler have conflict from their first meeting, and it never stops. If this were a contemporary novel, it would probably include a lot more sex scenes than the famous fade-to-black when Rhett sweeps Scarlett into his arms and carries her up the staircase.

The couple must long for each other. The potential lovers can’t have it easy. They must have external obstacles, such as the Civil War or the hatred that the Montagues and the Capulets have for one another in Romeo and Juliet, and they must have psychological barriers, such as previous failed relationships that have scarred them so badly they’ve totally given up on love. Scarlett’s big hangup, her belief that she loves Ashley, is her major inner barrier to the possibility of her love for Rhett, and she doesn’t overcome this psychological roadblock until the end of the novel. The couple must long for love, but must have a very difficult time obtaining it.

The first sex scene is usually the first kiss, or the near-kiss. A near-kiss may occur before the kiss and can add another layer of tension. The couple are almost unconsciously pulled together and come to their senses or are interrupted right before they actually kiss. A near-kiss can ratchet up the reader’s expectation for the actual first kiss. In a contemporary romance, after the couple’s conflict and longing, the first kiss is an oasis in the hot, parching desert. It brings the hope of love and fulfillment, and it can be sweet and tender or passionate and fiery. It makes the reader think the romantic couple has a chance, but, of course, more conflict and renewed longing follow it.

At this point the couple begins to work toward the climax, which in much contemporary romance is usually a full-blown sex scene full of graphic details. It can be brief or expanded, but it must mirror the couple’s feelings for one another. It can never contain sex for the sake of sex, but it must emphasize the love that has grown between these two individuals during the course of their conflict and longing. Sex for the pure lust of it can occur near the beginning of a romance novel, but it has to be clear that the romantic lead who indulges in such behavior is bitter or somehow not him/herself. By the time the climax with the true love occurs, this character must have come to her/his senses and be ready to commit much more than the physical to the relationship the lovers have suffered so much to achieve.

In the end, the couple achieves, or has begun to achieve, intimacy. These two characters have been transformed by love and leave readers hoping that they can find the same type of closeness. The author may then want to show the couple making love in a way that expresses this newfound intimacy or merely imply that this type of sex will be a positive and recurring force in their developing relationship.

So a contemporary romance needs a minimum of two sex scenes: a kiss, which can be effectively preceded by a near-kiss, and a climactic scene in bed with as many details as you feel comfortable writing. How much sex you include depends on your taste and on what clicks with your readers. That’s one of the pleasures of writing and reading contemporary romance: practically anything goes within the confines of the CLICK.


Shelley Thrasher

Shelley has a PhD in English and specializes in editing novels written by women. She spends most of her time style-editing for Bold Strokes Books.

She also enjoys writing poetry and novels, and posts selections at www.myspace.com/editlit.

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  1. I'm not that comfortable writing sex scenes. That's why I stick to sweet romances, where they're not a requirement unless the couple is married.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Very good article, Shelley. My wife should read this post.
    She's a HUGE romance novel fan - love Nora Roberts & others. I used her for my "honest opinion" reader when I was trying to write a sexy/romantic scene in one of my WIP's - a "cross-over" genre book, a comedic whodunit detective story with some underlying spiritual themes. She said, "No Banana - not sexy - stick to what you KNOW how to write." Sigh, back to what I do best, I guess.

  3. Morgan and Marvin,

    I find it very difficult to write a good sex scene because the number of body parts involved is rather limited. :)

    The writer needs to focus on the quality of the feelings between the people involved, imho.

  4. I recently did some desensitization training reading several Nora Roberts novels. Mercy. It didn't work. Give me a cozy mystery any day. Ironically, Nora Roberts work holds up without the sex. Why she hires staff to add it is beyond my comprehension. That's the only way to do it though, if your fans insist. Marvin, you could consider sub-contracting. Hand it over to the experts. Tell 'em to say away from your wife though. Heehee.


  5. Very good article, Shelley. I'm going to save it. As a reader, you can "see" these steps in the book, but, when the writing is done well, you don't think about them.

  6. I LOVE writing sex scenes. My critique group thinks I'm a little too good at it, and loves to see me pop in the door with one. :)

    I'm careful with them, though. I only write them when it's absolutely essential to the story, tailor them to the characters' personalities and to the tone of that story.

    Blatant gratuitous stuff reeks.

    Thanks for the post!

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I do like the CLICK rule, I mostly followed it, though at a faster, or altered pace. Since my writing is largely Comedy, I went the Romantic Comedy route, 2 drafts so far, screenplay size but not format, 2 girl 1 guy, and 1 guy 2 girl conflict/ extra sex scene, so my order is a bit tossed around but its all there.
    I hope to hear from a new Romance publisher this week about whether they pick my story up, then I can offer the 2nd. As one commenter mentioned, write what you know, well the male characters have a lot in common with me, because I know me very well. My female reviewer of 1st draft called my book "The Next Notebook" and literally couldn't put it down. I have used her perspective to spice up the sex scenes to fit a woman's desires. I can only hope to be successful at this, as my current self-published works have minimal sales.

  9. If it’s going to be a good, exciting novel, you have to play the sex scenes very carefully.

  10. One of my pet peeves is stories that include several looong love scenes. I don't care how much the main characters love each other, I just don't need that much detail. Plus, once they have gotten together, you've removed one of the main drivers for readers to keep going. Now your plot has to carry the rest of the story.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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